Finding Common Ground on Critical Race Theory: An Alumni Homecoming Conversation with Ralph Richard Banks

Ralph Richard Banks, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, presents during Alumni Reunion Homecoming in October.

According to the progressive watchdog Media Matters, Fox News mentioned critical race theory close to 1,900 times during a three-and-a-half-month period in 2021. Since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict the teaching of critical race theory and other issues of systemic inequality in the classroom. Of these, 17 states have successfully imposed restrictions on educators. Yet until a recent explosion in the news these past few years, critical race theory was a relatively niche and obscure academic theory.

To explain what critical race theory actually is and why it became so newsworthy, Stanford Center for Racial Justice Faculty Director Ralph Richard Banks recently presented at Stanford’s Alumni Reunion Homecoming weekend. Banks explained that the conversation was meant to further the SCRJ’s “North Star” of democratizing knowledge by demystifying what has recently become a political buzzword.

At its core, Banks defined critical race theory as a way of understanding and disrupting the centrality of racism in American society—both past and present. But as a theory that is critical and involves race, Banks joked, it was named for controversy.

George Floyd became an unwitting participant in this controversy when his murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin turned many of us into critical race theorists. Or, as Banks put it, we all began collectively asking ourselves: how can this be happening in the 21st century?

This is the “spine” of critical race theory. It’s an attempt to explain why 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, there was less integration in all of the South “than people in the auditorium right now.,” Banks said. Or how after achieving unprecedented civil rights legislation in the civil rights era, incarceration rates of Black Americans skyrocketed. Zooming out, it’s an attempt to answer the question of how the U.S. can appear to be progressing superficially without anything changing materially.

Banks, who teaches a critical race theory course at Stanford Law School, explained how it emerged in the 1970s and was pioneered by thinkers like Derrick Bell, an American lawyer, civil rights activist, and the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School. Bell advanced a critique of the role of rights and the dominant narrative of the U.S.’ steady march towards progress, arguing that racism is so deeply rooted in the U.S. that it can’t be overturned by legislation or a Supreme Court opinion. That’s why, for example, Prince Edward County in Virginia chose to close down its schools rather than integrate.

Some decades later, this idea that racism is inherent—not ephemeral—in American society morphed into a political football being tossed back and forth by opposing forces on the left and right. But critical race theory, at its core, is asking us to embrace society’s complexities rather than pick a polarity.

This is a theme that Banks returned to throughout the talk, cautioning against choosing one side of the critical race theory debate over the other as if both perspectives—racism vs. progressivity as the defining theme of American history—are diametrically opposed. Rather, he asked attendees to see the legitimacy of both narratives: that the U.S. can simultaneously be a land of freedom and of racism. Discussions about critical race theory should focus on this duality.

Our conversations about race and racism should also minimize finger-pointing, Banks said, and instead focus on systems. This involves recognizing that the more urgent problem isn’t individual players, but rather the rules of the game we’ve inherited.

Engaging in this type of dialogue is increasingly important as our country reckons with extraordinary economic inequality, Banks said. He concluded the talk with a warning: we can’t surmount this inequality without addressing its racial dimensions, and we can’t address its racial dimensions if we’re polarized. Critical race theory should be a catalyst for, not an impediment to, productive discussion to help us fill the gap between the world we have now and the world we’d like to live in.

For Banks, that’s a world where we can “look different, but not be different.”

Watch the presentation here.

Remeny White